Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Second World War in Italy

Prato, North of Florence, 1945

Michael Howard reviews two books in The Times Literary Supplement about the Italian campaign in the Second World War. He asks the question: was it worth it.

"During the Italian campaign in the Second World War the Allied forces lost over 300,000 men, the Germans perhaps half a million.

Probably over a million Italians were killed or wounded, to say nothing of the destruction inflicted on virtually every town and village between Sicily and the Po Valley.

No battlefield could have been worse chosen. For nearly two years the Allied armies had to fight for mountain after mountain, hill after hill, in a theatre that might have been specifically designed for defensive war.

The decision to invade the Italian mainland was taken at only six weeks’ notice, and had to be carried out by armies neither equipped nor trained for the mountain warfare that lay ahead of them.

Likewise, the decision to defend the peninsula was made only after the campaign had begun, when the German commander on the spot, Albert Kesselring, persuaded Hitler to abandon the original intention to pull back to the Apennines and allow him to defend the mountains south of Rome.

The result was two years of fighting in a theatre at best secondary, and one in which the Allies always found themselves at a disadvantage. Was it worth it? ...

James Holland’s ["ITALY’S SORROW: A year of war, 1944–1945"] gives full value to the Italian dimension of the campaign, and as his title suggests, this was not a happy one.

In parallel with the conflict between the Allied and German armies that was ravaging their country, the Italians were fighting their own civil war.

South of Rome they could do little but keep their heads down and survive as best they could – survival at a very marginal level, and, in Naples, in an environment of ruin, starvation, criminality and disease. But further north a Fascist government of a kind survived, if only as a mask for German Occupation – and a government often supported, as Holland makes clear, by many Italians who thought it dishonourable to betray their allies. But there also existed a resistance movement that grew in strength as the Allies advanced further north and as German conscription of labour drove more young men into the maquis.

It was a movement that the Allies supported inadequately and tentatively, and the Germans suppressed with an efficient brutality learned on the Eastern Front. Holland is very fair also to the Germans: apart from explicit orders emanating from Hitler, which they disobeyed at their peril, they could hardly fight while their communications were being harassed by francs-tireurs.

But the methods they used turned Italian dislike into detestation, while the failure of the Allies to provide more help resulted in an abiding mistrust that the Communist Parties were able effectively to exploit after the war."

In any discussion about the role of Pope Pius XII in the Second World War and after, it is perhaps too easy to forget the historical context of the decisions taken by him. The background was Italy. He was in Rome. He was Bishop of Rome.

The war in Italy led to nearly 2 million casualties and ravaged the whole peninsula as it became the battleground of rival forces over a number of years.

After the War, there was civil war. When peace was established, it was touch and go as to whether Italy would go Communist.

Pius XII remains an enigmatic figure. One awaits a biography of the man that would do justice to the man and the history of his times.